The word “icon” in the title of any biographical documentary is more often than not a promise of unqualified celebration, and so it is in “Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist,” Lorna Tucker’s consistently entertaining, enthralled portrait of aberrant British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. Sharp-lined but entirely flattering, rather like one of Westwood’s showiest catwalk gowns, Tucker’s film initially sets up intriguing friction between camera and subject, as the 76-year-old designer proves an ornery, recalcitrant interviewee: “Do we have to cover every bit of it, you know?” she moans at the outset. “It’s so boring to say all this.” “Westwood” resists meeting her spikiness in kind, approaching with fabulously accessorized cap in hand as it weaves lively archive footage and similarly awed talking heads around her queenly presence.
Westwood is a sufficiently fascinating figure for this straightforward strategy to yield satisfying rewards, and Tucker’s film should be a popular pick on the documentary festival circuit and subsequently on streaming platforms — both areas where fashion-world studies, with their point-and-shoot visual glitz and high celebrity quotient, tend to play well. (It’s given extra appeal in that regard by a light-footed 80-minute runtime; if anything, the film risks feeling a tad rushed in its overview.) For a tribute to the woman who brought the challenging sensibility and aesthetic of punk to popular culture, however, “Westwood” doesn’t break many rules of its own.
That said, the film’s more conventional trappings aptly underline how Westwood, in some ways cannily and in others accidentally, has grown from a counterculture rebel into a revered establishment figure, appointed a dame by Queen Elizabeth II in 2006. Her 1970s ascent to punk royalty, meanwhile, followed a working-class upbringing and young adulthood that initially promised a far milder future. Having dropped out of art school after doubting the financial viability of her passion, Westwood married, had a son and became a schoolteacher, before shifting social tides in the mid-1960s — and, crucially, an affair with situationist-inspired art student and future Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren — carried her away from sensible domesticity.
Westwood’s life is a rich narrative, rife with such reversals and reinventions: It’s a wonder, really, that it hasn’t prompted a biopic yet. Tucker, a former fashion model whose previous directing work includes promos for the Westwood brand, runs through it in engaging, slightly discursive style — reflecting, it feels, the manner in which her colorful but guarded subject related it to her. Perhaps it’s due to Westwood’s wary interview temperament that some key aspects of her biography are given short shrift: The punk movement, in particular, is discussed only at surface level, and “Westwood” never fully gets to grips with the complications of McLaren, Westwood’s relationship with him and their joint celebrity. (Their son, fellow fashion entrepreneur Joseph Corré, says more than she does on his father, and damningly so.)
Past alternates with present, meanwhile, as “Westwood” surveys the designer at work in her current fashion empire: cycling to headquarters, surveying models and style files, and fussing over her own designs with a critical, sometimes disassociated eye. (“Why did I want a small hem there?” she sneers at one blouse. “It’s crap, I don’t like any of this s—t.”) Her intense working partnership with her Austrian artistic director and second husband Andreas Kronthaler is perceptively scrutinized; a louche, witty interviewee, amazed and exasperated in equal measure by his wife’s brilliance, he fills in many of the gaps that Westwood is too restless or frustrated to explain.
The second half of the film, in particular, develops an interesting tension between success and satisfaction in its depiction of designer as businesswoman. Amid her international dealings and growing side occupation as an ardent environmental activist — the film briefly follows her on a Greenpeace mission to the Arctic — Westwood sometimes candidly voices her concerns that her brand has grown too big for her, and that she’s lost some aesthetic control of it. “I don’t need to sell anything I don’t like,” she says tartly. It’s not a question that anyone else dares to broach: True to its title, “Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist” is chiefly out to gild a remarkable, independent legacy. As the film unrolls its rousing, “Bolero”-scored closing montage of the stunning catwalk visions Westwood has given the fashion world over four decades, you can hardly say it’s undeserved.